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Federal Court of Appeals sets precedent in Delaware DOC restrictive custody case

Sarah Mueller
Delaware Public Media

The Third Circuit US Court of Appeals court remanded a lawsuit regarding Delaware’s use of restrictive custody back to a lower court this week, setting a new precedent for future cases surrounding the use of restrictive custody or solitary confinement for people with serious mental illnesses.

The 2018 lawsuit by a man named Angelo Clark focused on the seven months he spent in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna after what court records describe as an "incident" with a fellow inmate in a prison cafeteria.

Clark raised multiple allegations against the DOC, including that staff intentionally neglected his medical needs, placed him in restrictive custody in retaliation for his mental illnesses, and subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment by keeping him in restrictive custody for months. Clark, who has since passed away, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder.

A US District Court jury sided with the DOC on the allegations of medical neglect and retaliation, and a judge dismissed the allegation of cruel and unusual punishment, arguing that housing a person with serious mental illnesses in isolation for an extended period did not run afoul of "clearly established" 8th amendment protections.

In a ruling released on Monday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, calling the dismissal of Clark's 8th amendment complaint "premature." ACLU of Delaware Legal Director Dwayne Bensing, who argued the appeal, says the court's ruling sets a new standard for restrictive custody and solitary confinement cases.

“They said, ‘really, the right of prisoners known to have serious mental illnesses is not to be placed in solitary confinement for extended periods when prison officials know but disregard the lasting harm posed by those conditions," he said. No other federal circuit court has previously named that right explicitly, he added.

In its ruling, the Appellate Court wrote that "while the law recognizes that prison officials are authorized to punish for disciplinary infractions, the Constitution forbids them to do so “in a manner that threatens the physical and mental health of the prisoners.” In their view, Clark's allegations about the consequences of his stay in the SHU, including "increased incidents of hallucinations or self-mutilation resulting from the exacerbation of his schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder," placed his case "squarely in the purview of established 8th Amendment law."

The court also indicated that Clark's allegation that he was placed in a so-called "naked cell" without furniture "could raise a viable claim of cruel and unusual punishment in and of itself."

However, the court added that "solitary confinement does not per se violate the Constitution 'as long as the conditions of confinement are not foul, inhuman or totally without penological justification.'"

By remanding the 8th amendment complaint back to District Court, the appellate judges allowed the DOC to make the case that there were exigent circumstances and legitimate justifications that prompted Clark's extended stay in the SHU.

But even if the lower court sides with DOC in this case, Bensing says, the Appellate Court’s ruling establishes a new federal standard that could shape solitary confinement-related lawsuits in other states.

After a series of policy changes over the past decade, Delaware no longer practices solitary confinement when compared to national standards.

The American Correctional Association — the national organization that sets standards for the industry — considers solitary confinement to mean keeping a person in a cell for at least 22 hours per day for 15 consecutive days or more. At present, people in Delaware DOC custody can spend a maximum of 15 days in disciplinary detention, during which they receive 10 hours of out-of-cell recreation time per week. Those in the Delaware DOC's "restrictive housing" — the next-highest level of security — receive at least 17.5 hours of recreation per week.

As of 2020, more than half of those in the highest-security housing units in Delaware prisons were diagnosed with a mental illness — 20 percent higher than the state's general prison population. Since 2015, those with the most serious mental illnesses have been housed at the Residential Treatment Unit at Vaughn Correctional Center.

The DOC could not comment on the details of the case.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.